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Ebonics and Language Education of African Ancestry Students



This work comes at a time when people of African ancestry, particularly those in the Diaspora, are experiencing an important re-examination of self in relationship to their geographical space and origin. The most recent African language, Ebonics, captures the unmistakable and substantial evidence of this inquiry, while connecting itself to the African family of languages as far back as one of the most ancient ones, Medew Netjer. Ebonics and Language Education of African Ancestry Students examines the political, linguistic, cultural and social history of African people with the expressed intention to place the reader in the authentic context of the development of Ebonics.


To this end, the origin of the term Ebonics is fully defined in all its dimensions. Furthermore, this work demonstrates how the African genius has survived and created a new tongue in alien lands and in hostile circumstances. While maintaining a codified system of the grammatical structure of the African family of languages, the importation of new lexical items were employed from French, Dutch, English, Portuguese, Spanish and other European languages, thus giving birth to Ebonics. Unlike other texts that attempted to define the speech communication of Africans in the Diaspora, this resourceful work, which draws upon the scholarship of the foremost linguists and language educators of African ancestry, renders the data accessible to the experts as well as the layman. Finally and equally important, the pedagogical and research recommendations offered in this work are definitely useful to educational institutions and the general public.


                                                                                                 - Dr. Clinton Crawford


$24.95           416 pages 

Ebonics and Language Education of 

African Ancestry Students


ISBN 0-9706128-0-X



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Table of Contents


Edison O. Jackson


Preface and Statement of  the Problem

Clinton Crawford



Andrée N. McLaughlin





Clinton Crawford


Part I - The African Origin and Nature of Ebonics


1.  Content in Context: Why is There a Furor Over Ebonics?

     Clinton Crawford


2.  From Medew Netjer to Ebonics

     Kimani Nehusi


3.  Ebonics and Bilingual Education of the African American Child

     Ernie Smith


4.  Linguistic Dimension of Global Africa: Ebonics As International Languages of African      Peoples

     Aisha Blackshire-Belay


Part II - Ebonics and Education


5.  Ebonics: Myths and Realities

     Robert Williams


6.  It Ain't Hard to Tell: Distinguishing Fact From Fallacy in the Ebonics                  Controversy

     Keith Gilyard


7.  A Commentary on Ebonics: From a Ghetto Lady Turned Critical Linguist

     Geneva Smitherman


8.  Ebonics and African American English

     Arthur Spears


9.  Teaching Students of Diverse Language Backgrounds

     Iona Anderson-Janniere


Part III - Ebonics: Research and Pedagogy


10.  Ebonics and Education: Lessons From the Caribbean, Europe and the USA

       John R. Rickford


11.  The Oakland Experience

       Carrie M. Jefferson


12.  African Ancestry Students in America: Culturally-Relevant and               Linguistically-Appropriate Professional Development, Curriculums and        Instructional Strategies

       Nabeehah Sabree-Shakir



Clinton Crawford


Essay and Selected Bibliography



Clinton Crawford and Kimani Nehusi




Appendix I:  The Oakland Ebonics Resolution


Appendix II:  The Linguistic Society of America Resolution on Ebonics


Appendix III:  Recommendations A.A. Task Force


Appendix IV:  Barbara Day's Report of the Symposia


Appendix V:  Black Talk! Black Scribe! Black Thought!

Andrée McLaughlin





Clinton Crawford





                        Synopsis of Each Chapter

This book begins with my essay, Content in Context: Why is There a Furor Over Ebonics? My essay situates the controversy about Ebonics within the context to understand the explicit and implicit content of the debate. The presentation of a historical continuumhelps the reader to see where human communicative behavior began in Africa, its development and spread to other parts of the continent and the Diaspora. This essay also brings into bright focus the prolonged conflict between imperial, white supremacist hegemonyand its unrelenting intention to subject African  people to domination by imposing European culture and language. I argue that attempts to dismiss Ebonics as a legitimate language  of African descended people are efforts to negate the universal memory of African people. If Ebonics can be dismissed and marginalized, then all other members of the African family of languagesare ultimately doomed to the same fate.

The next piece, From Medew Netjer to Ebonics, essayed by Kimani Nehusi, recasts the entire debate about the newest member of the Africanfamily of languages  in its proper context by beginning at the beginning. Nehusi focuses our attention on the historicity, multidimensional relationshipand connection of African languages between the oldest known member in the African language family, the Medew Netjer, from the ancient Nile Valleyculture, to the newest member, Ebonics. Among the many areas of investigation, Nehusi examines the social history of Afrikan languages, while forging into bold relief how the double standards used in the classification of a language shifts from grammar when classifying European languages to lexicon as the sole criterion for defining African languages, including Ebonics. Additionally, Nehusi addresses other neglected areas of importance in this debate such as the Afrikan universal linguistic behaviours, spirituality, spirituality and words, names and naming, gender, reduplication, space and timedimensions, lexical items, orthography, humor, and non-verbal communication.

Ernie A. Smithprovides a penetrating analysis of the double standards at work in the misclassification  of Ebonics  and in the discriminationagainst speakers of Ebonics and teachers proficient in the language, Ebonics. In his essay, Ebonics and Bilingual Education of the African American Child, Smith launches the strongest challenge to the use of the phrase “BlackEnglish” and the tacit assumption that Ebonics is English, and, as such, there exists, ipso facto a genetic kinship between “Black English” and the Germanic language family  to which English belongs. By using the criteria of common origins and continuity in the rules of grammar, Smith presents a clear argument that Ebonics belongs to the African family of languages, exposing how Black English and other such names of African American Vernacular English constitute misnaming and inappropriate synonyms for Ebonics. He supports his argument with ample examples of Africanism  in the linguistic patterns by speakers of Ebonics in the United States of America. On the basis of this research, he shows a multiplicity of ways institutions and policy makers sustain language discrimination against students and teachers who speak Ebonics and thereby, contravene federal, state, and local policies as well as the US Constitution.

Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay’s essay, Linguistic Dimensions of Global Africa: Ebonics as International Languages of African Peoples, is most arresting because it takes the conversation around Ebonics into the international arena while examining the two major paradigmatic approaches used for research and articulation: (a) an archaic discourse about Africans from the standpoint of the European in the role of the dominator; and (b) a new approach where African people, including their languages, histories, and cultures, are studied from the standpoint as subjects and not objects. She expresses her disappointment over African descentlinguists participating in this debate who hesitate to acknowledge Ebonics as international languages of African peoples because they (the linguists) are experiencing nothing other than a personal inferiority complex. Blackshire-Belay exposes the reader to many ramifications of Ebonics, among them are the variables of language contact  of Ebonics, symbol of cultural identity, controlling our own language, Ebonics for survival, proverbs, stories, and music with their Global African dimensions.

Another one of the distinguished contributors to this work is the father of Ebonics, Robert Williams. His essay, Ebonics: Myths and Realities, dispels some of the fallacies about Ebonics by setting the record straight on the myths and realities surrounding Ebonics. Robert Williamsoffers a historical sketch of the social history that led to the coinage of the term Ebonics along with his extensive knowledge on the subject. He presents some of the arguments that were part of his testimony before the Congressional subcommittee in Washington, D.C., during January 1997. Among his many illustrations, Williams stresses the importance of recognizing the effective use of the child’s home language as a viable pedagogical too.

As expected, Keith Gilyardadds his brilliant and colorful insights to the debate. In his essay, It Ain’t Hard to Tell: Distinguishing Fact from Fallacy in the Ebonics  Controversy, Gilyard succinctly highlights the controversy’s flimsy foundation precariously seated on misinformation that blatantly ignores the voluminous body of documented work. Gilyard interrogates the stance of Koch, Steele, and Jackson by using them as examples of people who did not complete their homework before declaring themselves language experts. By emphasizing, as part of his discourse, how linguists are careful not to differentiate between a language and a dialect by rating one as superior or inferior, Gilyard lays to rest any misconception that Ebonics is inferior to English. Gilyard tantalizes the reader with parts of his personal language voyage, while he argues for a curriculumthat places the consciousness of the student and teacher in the same domain.

            Adding to the vanguard array of scholarship is Geneva Smitherman’s, A Commentary on Ebonics: From a Ghetto Lady Turned Critical Linguist. In her riveting piece, Smitherman takes the reader along the path of her struggle. Smitherman shares the nature of her struggle and how she became triumphant. On her journey, Smitherman has fought to include the linguistic patterns of “Black  speech” in the discourse of the academy. She points out the dialectical relationshipbetween language and power, between language and oppression, and between language and liberation. Smitherman also highlights the Ebonics research tradition and her personal encounter with language and liberation, from the Martin Luther King, Jr. School vs. Ann Arbor SchoolDistrict Case to the Oakland Unified School District’s policy initiative. While she resolutely believes that the academy must validate the language of African Americans in the curriculum, Smitherman stresses that African descentstudents must also express themselves well in the language of the wider community.

 Arthur Spears refers to the language used by many AfricanAmericans as African AmericanVernacular English (AAVE). In Spears’ essay, Ebonics and African American English, he reports that scholars such as William Labov, Walt Wolfram, and William Stewart led the pioneering empirical research in this field in the early days while, later, scholars such as Smitherman, Rickford, Baugh, and Spears continued the approximately thirty year-old tradition. Indisputably, argues Spears, “the AAVE variety of English, like all language varieties, is systematic and governed by its own set of grammatical rules.” Simply put, the rules of AAVE grammar and Standard English are quite different. Spears challenges us with respect to his views of Ebonics, contending that Ebonics is not a language, but rather a group of languages and associated communicative behaviors culled from several West African languages. He believes that more field study is still needed to find out precisely in what ways these languages are related, though it is understood how they are related on a broad level.

Besides sharing her intimate relationship with the profession of teaching and learning in general, Iona Anderson-Janniere  interviewed by Andrée McLaughlin, presents her personal odyssey of teaching, teacher-training activities and the experiences that led her to investigating, discovering and exploring curriculum needs for African American students. Essentially, her interview, Teaching Students of Diverse Language Backgrounds, focuses on the growing group of language learners migrating or immigrating to the urban areas of America, as well as the large numbers of African descentstudents being pushed into special education classes because of the misclassification of Ebonics as an inferior variety of English. Anderson relates her experience as a teacher of English as a second language and English as a standard dialect.

John Rickford, another one of the distinguished contributors to this work, lends his extensive reservoir of information with respect to the reaction and realities of teaching students whose first language is not English. Rickford’s essay, Ebonics and Education: Lessons from the Caribbean, Europe  and the USA, cites a similar proposal to the Oakland Unified School District  from Trinidad and Tobago, July 1975. He uses Carrington and Borely’s (1997) study to contextualize his arguments in support of the Oakland Unified School District’s initiative, thereby showing the proper international ramification of OUSD’s bold stance. By virtue of Rickford’s involvement with the SEP  initiative, a precursor to the final Oakland resolution, he shares many of his insights, evidence of the value of unconventional approaches that take into consideration the African  ancestry  students’ home language, contrastive analysis, and successful pedagogical approaches. His essay, like all of the others in this volume, is illuminating, while redirecting our sights from the over-sensationalized, media-hyped controversy to finding ways of helping our students gain mastery over reading and writing skills. He points out that the crisis of poor reading and writing skill is national in scope and it is not exclusive to the African American  community.

Carrie Jefferson  was an integral part of the Standard English  Proficiency (SEP) program and the African  American Task Force on the Oakland Unified School District  (OUSD). In her interview with Clinton Crawford, The Oakland Experience, she shares how the Task  Force came up with its recommendations that ultimately led to the OUSD Ebonics Resolutions and Policy Statement. Jefferson gives the reader a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the philosophical approach of the Task Force, strategies employed by the Task Force to achieve its aim, the literature reviewed, the operative strands in the pedagogical project of acquiring language skills, and her overall reflections on the entire controversy.

            Nabeehah Sabree-Shakir’scontribution, African Ancestry Students in America: Culturally-Relevant and Linguistically-Appropriate Professional Development, Curriculums and Instructional Strategies, is invaluable in many ways. For one, she was the determining figure who engendered the most recent and controversial attention to the importance of recognizing that the students of African ancestrycome to school with a language that is complete with all the linguistic features of a recognized language system, Ebonics. In her argument, Shakir argues for a culturally-specific, linguistically-appropriate and-relevant professional development and curricula for African ancestry students. Shakir’s contribution is the result of her more than twenty-five years’ experience as a classroom teacher, and five years as a supervisor of the Standard EnglishProficiency (SEP) program in the Oakland Unified School District. It was her leadership, hard work, and strong stance that culminated in the OUSD Board’s passage on the Policy of Ebonics on December 18, 1996.

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